Springfield organizations warn students human trafficking can start online in their own homes
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Social media is a dominant force in our world today, including the world of human trafficking.
And a pair of Springfield-based organizations are trying to get the word out to parents and children.
“A lot of adults have this false narrative about what sex trafficking of students looks like in America today,” said Russ Tuttle, the Founder/President of the Stop Trafficking Project. “It’s not about abduction where a creepy vehicle pulls up and abducts a child off the street. What it’s really about is seduction. And that seduction is 100 percent happening online.”
So that’s why Tuttle and his organization are partnering with another local group, Stand Against Trafficking, to visit all of Springfield’s Catholic schools this week to educate students and their parents about the dangers of what can happen to youngsters online.
The presentations have already been made to many other schools around the state and are different and age-appropriate for the various grades (K-12).
“It’s a difficult topic but one that needs to be talked about,” said St. Agnes sixth grade teacher Cam Branson. “The seriousness of it makes it one of those things that are uncomfortable to bring up.”
Starting so young may seem awkward, but exposure to social media comes at an early age. There’s a cultural craze where becoming an online “influencer” and having many “followers” is a huge part of social status and self-image.
“Students brag about having 2,000 followers,” Branson said. “They’re 13 years old and don’t know 2,000 people. So they’re giving access about their personal life to random people that they’ve never met.”
“Most people aren’t aware of how prevalent it is in southwest Missouri,” said Stand Against Trafficking Chair Rikki Barton. “But just last week, there were two individuals from Springfield convicted of child sex trafficking crimes. They recruited a girl here in Springfield and asked her to help recruit friends. There are a lot of predators who are going online to find young people’s vulnerabilities.”
So how does a young child have their vulnerabilities exploited to the point where they’re being sold for sex?
“It deals with the issues of loneliness, isolation, and depression among our kids,” Tuttle answered. “And increasingly we’re seeing the suicide rates skyrocketing because they’re getting bullied online, entering various controlling relationships and getting involved in pornography, which is the engine driving sex trafficking.”
“Those who are involved in this industry are very well-trained,” Barton added. “They know how to work a conversation and get information that leads up to sending a picture or sending something that would be used against them.”
“Then at some point, that person online, typically posing as a child the same age as the child they’re going after, will want to meet in-person,” continued Tuttle. “It’s no different than a criminal casing the neighborhood before they rob the neighborhood. There are people online poking at our kids, trying to find out what their boundaries are.”
And as the organizations have traveled around the state with their education program, they have learned more about those boundaries.
“Out of the 70,000 students we have made presentations to, about one-third of the students told us in a survey that they have met in-person a stranger that they first met online or are actively sharing nudes of themselves through social media,” Tuttle said. “Those are two of the common denominators that we want to end before they start. And what’s amazing is when we do these school assemblies, kids say, ‘Thank you for coming today and telling us the truth.’”
Tuttle also has separate presentations for parents.
“We don’t want parents to live in fear of online life but to be wise about it,” Tuttle explained. “We also need parents to step up and be parents and quit trying to be their kids’ best friends by giving them unlimited, unsupervised online access. That’s a dangerous place because there are perverts, predators, pimps, or traffickers who are preying on our kids online. We don’t need parents to be experts in technology because you’ll never keep up with all the latest apps. You simply need to know that if an online feature has any kind of a chat app, kids can be exploited there.”
Both organizations have websites you can go to for more information.
“On our website, we have over 100 pages of self-help items,” Tuttle said. “We also have an app that’s in partnership with another organization called Relentless Pursuit, and we’ve put this app together as a tool for parents that has videos and other helpful resources on it.”
“We host presentations and training for anyone who is interested in having one,” Barton said. “You can go to our website and request a presentation or information as well as see a webinar by Russ Tuttle. Feel free to get in touch with us if you would like training at your business, organization, or church. We would love to make a presentation to you.”
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